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Piedmont Wines: A Comparison

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Photo: David Cicconi

Rivetti came to Villa Tiboldi one day to see Damonte and walked away with a girlfriend: a quick-witted, fair-haired German named Anja who now runs La Spinetta’s business side. One evening I meet them in Pollenzo at a restaurant called Guido on the campus of Slow Food’s University of Gastro-nomic Sciences: an institution of higher learning that, by dint of its name alone, could exist only in Italy. This Guido is a direct descendant of the old Guido, where the 1985 tasting was held. The original Guido is gone but his sons now run the restaurant.

Rivetti is wearing a white dress shirt unbuttoned at the cuffs, his third shirt of the day. ("We go through a lot of shirts," Anja says.) He eats at Guido often, yet each time he encounters the high wooden ceiling, with its arc of futuristic lights, or the row of wine glasses behind a translucent wall, visible only in silhouette, he can’t help but marvel. "I remember being here back in 1998," he says. "It was an absolute mess."

The first Guido was one of the few places that employed sommeliers who were inquisitive about wine. The second has taken that to extremes, with two phone book-size lists for red wine alone. "Now winemakers come and drink wine from all over," Rivetti says. And this Guido is a departure from the old Piedmont in another way: the restaurant serves so much fresh fish that one of the two chefs specializes in it.

At Guido we eat beef tongue stuffed with cabbage and bottarga—preserved tuna roe. We eat agnolotti pasta filled with three meats, then rabbit with rectangles of puréed vegetables. Each of us at the table has chosen a wine to be served blind, and we end up with two Barolos, two Barbarescos, and a Burgundy.

We agree unanimously on which is best. Lush and supple, it has a nose of cherries but the driving force of a Charlie Watts beat. It is more modern than traditional but exudes that sense of place that marks the world’s finest wines. The bottle is revealed as the La Spinetta 1998 from Barbaresco’s Starderi vineyard.

Rivetti, who had no idea that a wine of his was on the table, is overjoyed by our reaction, but even more by his own. "I never recognize my wine," he says. "But I always love it."

The memory of the Starderi still lingers when Pio Boffa collects me the next morning in Monforte d’Alba, where I’m staying. We wind past groves of pencil-thin trees toward Alba and his winery. The towns we pass through seem similar—each is built atop a hill and dominated by a church, with streets paved in square stones and red-shuttered houses topped by barrel-tile roofs, yet each has singularities. Monforte uses white-marble inlay instead of paint to mark its crosswalks, for example. We pass a man in a long coat shuffling along the street beside a dog; both look as they might have a century ago. "Truffle hunters," Boffa says.

Pio Cesare was founded in 1881 by Boffa’s great-grandfather. The winery itself, which has a tiled courtyard, brick-domed ceilings, and other features of traditional Piedmontese architecture, dates back to the 1600’s. Boffa takes me to see a Roman wall from 50 B.C. that cuts through the cellar, separating his fermentation tanks from his barrels. "If you have something like that in your winery, you must respect it," he says.

Accordingly, he uses large wooden casks, which impart less oak flavor, to age his wine. Unlike La Spinetta’s labels, which feature Albrecht Dürer woodcuts of wild animals, Pio Cesare’s look as if they’ve been handed down directly from the 19th century. And when Boffa spent about $10 million to renovate the winery’s inner workings several years ago, he commanded the contractor to keep the place looking the same. "So if my late grandfather walked in, he’d not notice a difference," Boffa says. "I told them, ’I don’t care about the cost. I don’t care if it’s not practical. Exactly the same.’"

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